Eat, Shop, and Be Merry?

Early on in my study of consumer behavior, I attended a national conference on eating disorders. Catherine Steiner-Adair, one of the keynote speakers, asked the audience what we thought were the two major activities traditionally pursued by women to deal with life’s ups and downs. The silence was palpable. She then answered her own question: “Dieting and shopping.” Her statement was instantly acknowledged throughout the room, first by a saddened hush, then with murmurs of agreement all around. That was 1991.  In the intervening twenty years, I’ve witnessed firsthand the intricate and complex relationship between shopping and eating, weight and wealth, being rich and being thin.

Kathleen Kingsbury, in a manuscript not yet in print, is examining that relationship. She looks at the history of women’s complicated connections with food, body image, and finance, and she highlights the nature of their linkages. And Diane Barth explored the some of the same territory in “When Eating and Shopping Are Companion Disorders” (Benson, I Shop, 268-87). There she observes that although “every therapist who works with eating disorders can provide anecdotal reports of binge eaters who binge-shop, anorexics who shoplift, bulimics who compulsively buy items they never use,” less expected combinations are also abundant. One anorexic “may also severely limit herself in regard to all purchases . . . while another shoplifts regularly and . . . a third goes on frequent shopping sprees.” Barth sees shopping and eating as two entirely normal ways to regulate and manage moods and feelings; they can soothe us when we feel “hurt, lonely, angry, or disappointed,” relax us when we feel “tense, overwhelmed, or over-stimulated,” or energize us when we feel sad or tired. They are connected, in other words, by their similar function in coping with affects. When people can’t regulate or tolerate their feelings, however, shopping and/or eating can become “repetitive, compulsive, and undifferentiated responses to a wide variety of emotions and experiences.”

Barth notes that people with shopping and eating disorders often have little sense of their own inner processes, little ability “to conceptualize emotional cause and effect.” They lack, she finds, “the ability to use words symbolically to help metabolize emotions.” So even when they can articulate what are apparently clear symbolic connections between their eating and shopping behaviors and, say, their childhood experiences, their symptoms don’t change.

A case in point: now that Jennifer Hudson’s weight loss has brought her from a size 16 to a 6, the singer admits to being addicted to shopping. Since she began enjoying her new body, Hudson has bought a lot of new clothes. “It got to a point where I could barely get in my bedroom,” she told InStyle magazine. When did she realize she had a problem? “Well, my bed is a canopy. I had nowhere else to throw the clothes. So I threw them on top of the canopy!” Hudson continues to shop whenever she travels. “Each city we go to, my suitcase won’t hold my new clothes, so we have to box them up and ship them home. Then I get back and want to try on everything I bought, so clothes are just everywhere.” Hudson seems at ease with the problem. Her shopping may not stop, she says, but her weight loss will: “you’re never going to see me skinny.”

In a recent piece for American Express Open Forum (, Jean Chatzky cites research showing that “your health and your wealth are inextricably linked,” including a recent German study demonstrating that “serious debt makes you twice as likely to be overweight or obese.” For people with both shopping and eating problems, she offers this six-step plan:

Start with one thing first.
It’s not easy to tackle two daunting tasks at once. And dieting—whether with your stomach or your wallet—can be incredibly daunting. So pick either your weight or your money as your first focus.

Deal with feelings of deprivation.
When you start reining in your spending so you have money to pay down your debt, you might actually gain a few pounds at first. Be on the lookout for your impulses to transfer from shopping to eating. When you’re trimming your spending, if it feels like deprivation, you’re going to try to fill yourself up in another way. Eating is the commonest other way. To minimize the chances of this happening, give yourself small manageable goals. Save $10 to put toward your debt this week, or drink water instead of soda.  Next week, you can aim to save $15 or start taking a walk on your lunch break.  If even that seems like too much, alternate so you focus on your weight one week and your debt the next.

Once you’re feeling in control, layer.
You’ve dropped a few pounds or paid down a few hundred in debt and now you’re feeling pretty good, right?  In fact, what you’ve learned is impulse control.  You’ve given your willpower a workout.  Now it’s time to add on the second half of the equation.  You’ll see that the challenge you’ve already conquered will help you. When you get a grip on your finances and live in the black instead of in the red, you’ll be less stressed out, which helps reduce stress eating.  In the short term, losing weight increases your self-esteem, which could make you less prone to emotional eating and shopping. However, it could go the other way, like it did for Jennifer Hudson, so be on the lookout for rewarding yourself for losing weight by overshopping.

Pick a new distraction.
If you substitute eating for shopping, or shopping for eating, you’re right back to where you started.  Instead, try to figure out what will meet your needs and not erode your life in the way that turning to food and to stuff does.  Call up a friend and see if she can get together for coffee, take a long walk, go on a run, or organize a space in your home that has gotten out of control.  All of these things can help quell the feelings that might drive you to shop and eat.

Reward yourself.
We all need something to look forward to, and often, it’s easier to meet goals if we make them tangible.  Give yourself milestones, and when you reach them, have a mini-celebration: join a friend for a drink, get a manicure, have that cookie (just one) you’ve been wanting.  To keep yourself on track, think about what reaching your goals will mean.  If you pay off debt, you might have an extra $300 to put toward something you want, like the payment on a new car or a trip to the beach next summer. And if you shed the extra weight, you can wear a bikini on that trip with confidence, or play with your kids without getting winded.

Finally (and this is not so much a step as a long-term change), delve deeper.
Once you’ve seen some early progress, it’s time to figure out why you’re overspending and why you’re overeating.  Often, it’s about loneliness. When you’re at the mall, you’re surrounded by people, and the sales clerks all want to make you happy. Another common root is low self-esteem.  You already feel bad about how you look, so you figure one donut won’t make a difference.  You need a boost, so you head to your favorite store, where you can try on a new outfit and everyone will tell you how amazing it looks on you.  Or maybe it’s plain old boredom.  You have too much downtime, at work or at home, so you’re constantly snacking and shopping online.  Whether you’re shopping or staring into the fridge, ask yourself a few simple questions:  Why are you here?  How do you feel?  Do you need this?  Keep in mind this mantra for overshoppers and overeaters: “you can never get enough of what you don’t  really need.”  Eating and shopping often spiral out of control because we’re trying to fill a void, but going about it in the wrong way.  Once you’ve pinpointed what really drives you to the store and the fridge—and often, it’s the same thing—you can start dealing with it in a constructive, lasting way.

By Carrie Rattle

Carrie Rattle is a Principal at, a website for women focused on mind and money behaviors. She has worked in the financial services industry for 20+ years and hopes to inspire women to better prepare themselves for financial independence. Read More